The 2015 University of Missouri Protests and their Lessons for Higher Education Policy and Administration

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Kentucky Law Journal, Forthcoming

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Ben Trachtenberg
University of Missouri; Mizzou; protests; student protests; higher education; race; racial justice; leadership; management; student activism; university governance; shared governance; hunger strike; football; athletics; free speech
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paper description
In 2015, student protestors at more than eighty American universities issued administrators demands related to racial justice. Even readers intensely interested in both civil rights and higher education policy could name few of these institutions. Yet somehow the University of Missouri (“Mizzou”)—along with Yale and a few other universities—became nationally famous as a hotbed of racial unrest. At most of these eighty universities, presidents did not resign, enrollment did not plummet by thousands of students, nor did relations with state politicians deteriorate terribly. In the tradition of legal narrative and storytelling, this Article explores how the University of Missouri managed to fare so badly after students began protesting during the fall of 2015. It reviews the details and context of the Missouri protests and then presents a case study of crisis management and conflict resolution gone awry. Applying observations about higher education policy and administration to the phenomenon of student protests—particularly those related to race—the Article identifies potential pitfalls for university administrators and student activists. It then explains how specific actions taken (and, in some cases, not taken) by University of Missouri leaders increased the risk that student protests would lead to long term institutional damage. Finally, the Article suggests lessons that leaders at other universities—including trustees and administrators, as well as students and faculty—can take from Mizzou’s experiences. Contrary to popular opinion, Mizzou did not have a uniquely bad racial climate, nor did its students behave in inexplicable ways. Instead, the challenges faced in Missouri will present themselves elsewhere, and leaders who have taken the time to learn from Mizzou’s mistakes will fare better than those who choose to ignore this history.